Welcome to our recurring series “Who The Fuck Are All These Fucks?” in which we profile, in brief, each of the 2020 candidates for president. This series is not meant to be exhaustive, and you’re encouraged to look into each candidate on your own.
There’s solid evidence that this is part five of the witch’s curse we’re calling “coverage of the 2020 presidential election” and it’s time to stop by and say hello to Elizabeth Warren, United States Senator from Massachusetts.
NAME: Elizabeth Ann Warren
ETHNICITY: 99% white
CURRENT JOB: U.S. Senator from Massachusetts
PREVIOUS JOB: Special Advisor for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
CHANCES: 1% likely
Elizabeth Warren (née Herring) was born in Oklahoma City in 1969 (nice).
She did debate in high school, won a debate scholarship to George Washington University, and then dropped out of GWU to get married and move to Houston and then to New Jersey, where she got her law degree from Rutgers.
She lectured at several schools before becoming a full professor at the University of Texas School of Law in the mid-1980s. Her specialty was bankruptcy law, including a series of insights into what causes bankruptcy and how middle income families and individuals are effected by economic forces. She eventually made her way to Harvard as a visiting professor in 1992, joining the school permanently three years later.
Fast foward to 2008: faced with a massive financial crisis and threats of bankruptcy, what do you do? Congress decided to pass the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, overseen by a five-member panel of experts. The experts were bank regulator Richard Neiman, AFL-CIO financial counsel Damon Silvers, outgoing Senator John Sununu* (R-NH), budget hawk Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) – and the nation’s pre-eminent expert on bankruptcy law, Elizabeth Warren.
It’s important to remember that Warren came into the national eye because of her knowledge of bankruptcy law and its effects at a time when that was something Americans were very, very concerned about. Warren believed that industry – especially the financial services industry – had been reckless with consumer money and supported the creation of a consumer advocacy agency. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was established in 2010 and President Obama tapped Warren to set up the agency.
But Warren wasn’t picked as its first official director. Instead, that job went to Richard Cordray, someone the Obama administration thought might be able to win support in the Senate (the director’s job requires Senate confirmation).
Warren instead returned to Massachusetts to become a Senator. Warren faced off against Scott Brown, and although Brown was popular with voters, she was the favorite to win. She did, 54-46, and became the Senate Democratic watchdog for the financial services industry.
What have her big accomplishments been in the U.S. Senate? Fundraising. I mean, let’s not beat around the bush here, Warren’s message is very popular to middle class Democrats, who have heaped money on Warren and other Democrats who have a similar message. And with a Republican Congress, many of Warren’s ideas – like the Bank on Student Loans Act, which would allow students to take out government loans at the same 0.75% rate that banks pay – were never going anywhere anyway.
But she’s also managed to embroil herself in a weird controversy. Growing up in Oklahoma, Warren – like virtually all white people in Oklahoma – was taught that she was descended from at least one Cherokee ancestor. This is pretty normal: 819,105 Americans told the 2010 Census that they had at least one Cherokee ancestor. That’s more than double the 316,000 enrolled Cherokee tribal members. As Gregory Smithers wrote for Slate in 2015:
“So why have so many Americans laid claim to a clearly fictional identity? Part of the answer is embedded in the tribe’s history: its willingness to incorporate outsiders into kinship systems and its wide-ranging migrations throughout North America. But there’s another explanation, too… after their removal, the tribe came to be viewed more romantically, especially in the antebellum South, where their determination to maintain their rights of self-government against the federal government took on new meaning.”
It’s not a huge surprise that Warren’s family believed that they had at least one Cherokee ancestor and that they taught a young Elizabeth that she was part of the Cherokee tradition, even if they weren’t part of the tribe.
It’s a little more bizarre that Warren ran with it.
In the 1980s, Warren began listing her ancestry as “Native American”, including on a bar application in Texas. She did the same at Harvard, where the college – unbeknownst to Warren – used her as an example of the school’s “diversity”. That, of course, became a national headline for Warren during her 2012 Senate campaign and especially when then-candidate Donald Trump used it against Warren repeatedly.
And then she ran with it again.
In 2018, Warren held up a DNA test that demonstrated that she was, in fact, descended from at least one Native American, some 6-10 generations previous. That’s also pretty normal for people in Oklahoma, honestly. But, as the Cherokee Nation protested, that didn’t make Warren a Cherokee.
Warren’s political positions focus on the financial industry, which is where her strength is. She’s what we sometimes call a “Berniecrat”, someone whose political views line up with Bernie Sanders’ vision for the American Left. Her international politics can sometimes be inconsistent, but Warren – for better and worse – isn’t running as an internationalist candidate. She wants to make improvements to the United States, to our economy, our culture, our society, etc.
But Warren’s biggest obstacle is going to be how she exists within our economy, our culture, and our society now. Warren is a millionaire, a former Ivy League law professor, and someone who, despite all that money, education, and opportunity, made a serious misstep. I’m not sure her obvious lack of knowledge on Native American culture is enough to keep her from being an appealing candidate, but it points to Warren’s greatest weakness: she believes she is right, always, period. And that cockiness might be appealing in a Senator, but it’s going to look self-aggrandizing on a debate stage next to other Democrats.